When eating is as addictive as smoking


Ever joke that you’re addicted to potato chips? Research suggests that you might really be! — AFP

Is it possible to become addicted to processed foods like potato chips and candy in the same way as nicotine?

This controversial idea is the subject of a new scientific analysis in which international researchers estimate that 14% of adults may be addicted to ultra-processed foods.

This finding has prompted the researchers to call for in-depth studies to develop new policies targeting this food category.

They believe that ultra-processed foods may share the same scientific characteristics that led to the classification of nicotine as an addictive substance, as highlighted by research published late last year (2022).

The two American scientists behind this earlier research, in partnership with other scientists based in the United States, Brazil and Spain, reiterate that “identifying some foods as addictive could shift attitudes [and] stimulate research”.

“There is converging and consistent support for the validity and clinical relevance of food addiction,” says corresponding author and University of Michigan psychology professor Dr Ashley Gearhardt in a news release.

“By acknowledging that certain types of processed foods have the properties of addictive substances, we may be able to help improve global health.”

This suggestion is based on an observation made by the researchers that not all foods have the same potential for addiction.

“Most foods that we think of as natural, or minimally processed, provide energy in the form of carbohydrate or fat, but not both,” explains Virginia Tech’s Fralin Biomedical Research Institute assistant professor Dr Alexandra DiFeliceantonio.

To support their argument, the researchers use the example of an apple, which has a carbohydrate-to-fat ratio of around 1:0, and a slice of salmon, which has a ratio of 0:1.

For a chocolate bar, however, the ratio would be 1:1, “which appears to increase a food’s addictive potential”.

Assist Prof DiFeliceantonio adds: “Many ultra-processed foods have higher levels of both.

“That combination has a different effect on the brain.”

Published in Food For Thought, a special edition of The BMJ, the paper reports the findings of an analysis of 281 studies carried out in 36 different countries.

This led the researchers to estimate that ultra-processed food addiction may occur in 14% of adults and 12% of children.

“Given how prevalent these foods are – they make up 58% of calories consumed in the US – there is so much we don’t know,” says Assist Prof DiFeliceantonio.

“Behaviours around ultra-processed food, which are high in refined carbohydrates and added fats, may meet the criteria for diagnosis of substance use disorder in some people.

“Those behaviours include less control over intake, intense cravings, symptoms of withdrawal, and continued use despite such consequences as obesity, binge-eating disorder, poorer physical and mental health, and lower quality of life,” the researchers state.

In particular, the scientists call for in-depth studies of ultra-processed foods, if only to define which ones may be potentially addictive in order to put in place new strategies.

This could take the form of taxes or labelling systems, for example, based on this analysis.

A number of studies have recently highlighted the damaging effects of ultra-processed foods on health, in terms of cardiovascular (heart) disease, cancer and even mental health disorders. – AFP Relaxnews

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